McCarthy call to cut science funding crass and ill-informed

 

OPINION:Colm McCarthy’s report on spending cuts is wrong: public investment in science is paying off, writes LUKE O'NEILL

IN THE past seven years Ireland has risen on the international league tables in relation to its performance in scientific research. This achievement is because of increased funding over that period by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the government agency which funds scientific research. The evidence for this can be seen across several internationally accepted measures, notably outputs in terms of discoveries (as measured by publications), patents, spin-out companies and collaborations with multinationals. The investment made to date is working.

It therefore came as a major surprise to researchers who are responsible for these impressive achievements that the recent report from Colm McCarthy’s “An Bord Snip Nua”, in its review of public spending, blithely stated: “The evidence adduced to date for the impact of State STI [science, technology and innovation] investment on actual economic activity has not been compelling.”

In stark contrast to the US and Germany, which have actually increased expenditure on scientific research in response to the economic downturn, the report “proposes an initial reduction of just over €100 million, or 15 per cent of the 2009 allocation”. It is therefore necessary and essential to address the issue of whether or not Ireland can afford to continue to support basic research, in order to prevent these misguided proposals from being implemented.

SFI was set up to improve Ireland’s position internationally as a place where outstanding scientific research is carried out. In 2004, the then director of SFI, Dr William Harris, organised a meeting in Dublin Castle with the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and tánaiste, Mary Harney along with leading SFI-supported researchers and the CEOs of multinationals with a major presence in Ireland. On that occasion, I directly addressed the taoiseach stating that he must wonder why the Irish taxpayer should fund science.

I went on to say that two outputs from their substantial investment should be hoped for: Firstly, that within five years (a relatively short time for outputs from research) Irish scientists would make globally important discoveries that would improve human knowledge, and secondly, that in the case of life sciences, the field in which I work, an indigenous biotechnology sector would begin to emerge. Regarding the first goal, Irish scientists have made a host of important discoveries over the past five years.

Ireland is now in the top 1 per cent in several fields based on citation per paper which measures research impact, one good example being in immunology where we now rank second in the world. Other fields where Ireland performs in the top tier include molecular biology and neuroscience.

Regarding the second goal, several companies have spun out from SFI-funded laboratories. There have also been important collaborations established with 300 companies, including multinationals such as Intel. IDA Ireland has been able to use SFI as another argument to attract foreign direct investment – 56 new projects secured by IDA Ireland in 2008 were attracted here due to significant involvement with researchers funded by SFI. SFI is also seen as key for IDA Ireland to attract and retain high-tech investment into Ireland.

All of this constitutes a remarkable performance for the level of SFI investment when compared to international norms. Take the example of Opsona Therapeutics, a TCD spin-out company and one of Irelands indigenous biotechnology companies which focuses on novel therapeutic and preventative approaches to auto-immune and inflammatory diseases. I was co-founder of this company in 2004 along with two fellow academics Kingston Mills and Dermot Kelleher at Trinity College Dublin and PhD scientist and entrepreneur Mark Heffernan. A total of €29 million has been raised to date which is made up of mainly international venture capital funds Novartis Venture Fund, Inventages and the Roche Venture Fund, along with the Irish venture funds Seroba Kernal and Fountain. Enterprise Ireland also provided key support.

This is the largest round of funding for any Biotech company of comparable size in Europe in 2008. Quite simply Opsona Therapeutics would not exist without the support from SFI, as it gave the founders funding to pursue basic research projects which not only gave rise to intellectual property, but also provided the opportunity to publish important discoveries, thereby gaining international credibility as scientists. Without this credibility, the venture funds would not have given the funding. It is this kind of benefit that can’t be directly measured and yet is obvious.

The McCarthy report also recommended that research expenditure should be more commercially focused. Why is it that the major pharmaceutical companies have difficulty discovering new drugs in spite of multibillion investments in research? And why are they increasingly turning to small biotech companies and academics to help them? It is because the discovery process is very challenging and requires substantial insight – a key trait found in people who pursue basic research passions.

What will happen if Ireland takes its eye off this particularly important ball? The effect will damage Ireland for a protracted period. Science is a superb pursuit as it involves adventure and discovery. Its aim is to “boldly go where no-one has gone before” and it should attract the brightest and best in any country. Scientific discovery satisfies a key human need – curiosity. More importantly it gives rise to new technologies which improve human lives, and is a key engine for economic growth. That Ireland should not participate in this grand adventure would relegate it to the league of countries that are economically underdeveloped and unable to participate fully in the world economy. Ireland would also not have a role in the shaping of future technologies, putting us at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Four particular things will happen if funding decreases or is redirected away from fundamental research. First, our best scientists will leave Ireland and the initial period of investment will have been wasted. Irish scientists are in high demand internationally and they will go where there is funding to pursue their passion of basic discovery. Second, we will let down a generation of our brightest and best. One of the country’s most important natural resource is its people and not to support them, both in education and in science, would be akin to Ireland discovering oil and not investing in oil wells. Investment in them is fundamental in ensuring economic recovery.

It is well known that investing in basic research is not for an immediate output. It is to be ready for change and remain competitive. However, it is also well known that investment in basic research, as well as being an investment in what economists prosaically call human capital, pays back on average three to one in the long run. What other sector that the Irish government funds can boast such a return? Thirdly, the fragile growing indigenous biotech sector (and other similar sectors) will falter as there will be difficulties in obtaining venture funding and also recruiting trained staff, and Ireland will be seen internationally as a third rate place for high-tech business. Finally, multinationals will be given another reason either not to locate here, or more importantly to move to other countries where there is support for science.

They have enough reasons to go already. We can only hope that the other recommendations in the McCarthy report aren’t as ill-informed and crass as those relating to investment by Ireland in science and technology, otherwise Ireland is doomed.

Luke O’Neill is professor of biochemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, and founder director of Opsona Therapeutics